Why I Blog About Grief

I write about my grief publicly for two reasons. First, I am nourished by articulating my loss. Each word is a kind of testament to my survival. The words ground me in the present while also giving me access to the past. It is the language itself that soothes me, but knowing there is an audience provides an added sense of connection and validation that also helps me. I write the words, someone reads them, and an exchange takes place. I give you the most tender and vulnerable parts of myself and you read, you give your time, and absorb my words into your consciousness. Now some part of me lives in you. Maybe you will think of me. Maybe you will remember me. Isn't that what so many of us want?

Second, I write my grief as a kind of warning to others. Implicit in much of what I post about my life is the desire for you to do what I did not. I want you to cherish the people in your life. I want you to know how easily they can be lost. I want you to ask them questions, learn about them, remember and record as much as you can, leave nothing unsaid because there is so much about my father that I will never know. And, when I look back, I am haunted by the feeling that I took him for granted, that I did not show my love enough. When I share the personal details of my pain, I am calling out to you, trying to awaken you to what you have but might not see, just as I didn't see it. What I seek in writing is emotion. I want it to make me feel alive and feeling alive means realizing that what you love will die and so will you. But we are here right now, for this moment, and we must find ways to connect and love and share. That's all we can do. So I choose to share these words.

"The One Dear Body": Anna Kamienska and Death

Maria Madej, Julia Hartwig, and Anna Kamienska

At the cemetery. Some great comfort in this leveling of all. I lit candles not just on “my” grave, but on my friends’: Lec, Pietak, Mach . . .

Transformation is one of life’s gifts. When I look in the mirror now, I see Mother and Grandma united in my face. As though they’d returned. This is how we’re transformed. Through returns. They both come back to me in dreams now, Mother and Grandma. One always wants me to be better than I am. The other demands nothing, only loves, understands, brings tender medicine.

Grandma was our doctor in childhood. She brought us onions, garlic on wheat bread, bitter gentian, wormwood. She bought apples with her last pennies: the cheapest, withered. You ate them whole, stems and all.

* * *

I dreamed of my dead in silver masks.

* * *

Yesterday I heard, “He’s gone now. His body has decomposed. He’s gone. He’s not coming back.” I must still have illusions since those words still hurt. There are people who’d like to kill you in me. Don’t be frightened. You’re still alive, you won’t die. You can come back without fear.

* * *

The dead absorb us more than the living, because we always think there’s still time. Preoccupied with building their posthumous life inside us, we sometimes neglect the living.

* * *

When I hear violin music, I feel a painful clutch at my heart. I didn’t understand that pain. It’s my father playing the violin. I didn’t understand his death, I couldn’t accept it. But the blow hit hard, it left scars.

Is this consciousness therapeutic? I don’t think so. It reawakens all the later pains and sorrows anchored in that childish lament. It was the prototype of all the suffering foretold for my entire life. I walk through life with steps of death: father, brother, mother, grandma, husband. The whole tribe dropping along the roadside—into the void all around.

* * *

My way of the cross, my winter’s way. To his dead hands. I knew I would lose them and I drew them lying on the blanket that last day. Lovely, delicate hands. Why did I draw them? How did I know?

* * *

Zosia K.’s husband is dying. He never saw the world, but he’s enthralled by falling snow. He asked them to open the windows. Snow and death entered together.

* * *

All words about death are a lie, since all hopes are a lie. Words are futile hopes.

A clump of earth, a stone, a greedy strip of green: these don’t lie.

* * *

Prof. W. explained to me that there are weightless things. Gravitation for one. It is not material, yet it exists, we feel its pull. So the dead may likewise still exist. Through what they have left behind, through memory, their influence, and so on.

This is no comfort, though, when you howl, yearning for familiar hands, the chest, the one dear body.

* * *

My dreams like candles for the dead.

* * *

It seems that the dead always appear in our dreams just before we wake. In this way they remain somehow half real.

In my dreams his body is always phosphorescent blue.

* * *

The hospital bed. Bed for dying. Who lies ending there now? Who stands by the bedside? I again. Another I.

* * *

I want to be earth. Be earth. To hold you closely in my embrace. Always.

* * *

My dead always surround me. I walk in an invisible crowd.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Source: Poetry Foundation

Rosanne Cash On Loss and Grief

Over a two-year period, Rosanne Cash lost her mother, her father, and her stepmother. In 2006, she gave an interview with NPR about her album Black Cadillac and spoke about loss, grief, death, and music.

On the album Black Cadillac: My hope is that they [listeners] bring their own lives to it; that they're not just hung up on the back story of the deaths of these people, because it's not a tribute record. But it is about the terrain of lost grief. And loss is not just one thing. I mean, it's also anger, and it's also liberation and the renegotiation of these relationships. You know, because I don't think that a relationship between parent and child ends when one person leaves the body. It goes on but you've got to find the new terms.

On the song "The World Unseen": I started writing that one around the same time as "God is in the Roses" [the first song she wrote after the death of her father, Johnny Cash]. And it was an epiphany, really. I realized that this outcome isn't just particular to them; that we're all headed in that direction. It's a very prosaic realization that felt like an epiphany. So I started writing the song. And then also to find the person you love in artifacts that they leave behind: in their geography, in their particular belongings, possessions. The bits of them that they leave behind, you know? There is something very comforting about that.

On the death of her father, Johnny Cash: We met over music and playing songs for each other. So the idea that he didn't hear this [album], or hasn't heard it, has been very painful for me.

And in fact, when I wrote the song, "The Good Intent", which is a song about our ancestry, 300 years of the Cash ancestry, I was in a taxi coming down Fifth Avenue and it hit me. And I -- no, first I thought to myself I've got to call dad and play this song for him over the phone. And hit me I was not going to call dad and play this song. And I think that's when it sunk in that he was gone. That was the moment. That was a life changing moment.

Mourning Stories: The Distance of Grief

guest post by Nicky

My relationship with Death:

Grief Distant
I grew up near the infamous cliff  in the U.K where people travel, with their life's unbreathable woes, to jump, leaving each woe in a line along the cliff edge looking down. So many of our woes take us to the edge.

Aged five and on a walk with my friend and her family, we were approached under the cliff by two policemen instructed to look for a  'jumper' who had been sighted close by. I remember sitting on the rocks and watching the stretcher go past. The woman was covered with a blanket but her beautiful blue shoes and matching handbag were visible.

She could have been like us, looking in the rock pools and lifting out small crabs, but she had chosen death over that. Aged five that was my thought: She has chosen death over that and she has chosen her best bag and shoes to go to her death.

Grief Closer
The overwhelming factor in my work now is suicide risk-assessing . All mental health NHS trusts are driven by the fear of having self-inflicted deaths on their books. But it is a factor of the work. It has happened on my caseload and the responsibility and interrogation that follow is overwhelming.  What you hold in your head is overwhelming but if serious intent is there, the best treatment in the world will not stop it.

Then there is the bereavement counselling work. There have been truly life-affirming, enlightening  and heart breaking moments during the sessions. The counselling is for 'abnormal grieving ' where the grief itself is causing the person to become mentally unwell and unable to function. In my experience the grief is nearly always about something other than the death of that person, or some factor in the relationship that was unresolved and often at that point unrevealed to the person themselves. A special memory was a gentleman, now departed himself, who had lost his wife. He had for two years been unable to look at her rings, which had been sealed in an envelope on the day she died. He wanted to hold them but feared collapse to do so. We worked through until he brought the envelope with him. I opened it and held the rings and he put his hands in my hands and we held them together until he could take them from me. Tears drop to remember the poignancy of that moment.

Grief Closest
My personal experiences of grief are part of me like memorable holidays and poignant music. They are written in me. The black cloak that drops from a height knocks you off your feet and removes you from every thing that has held you to the ground.

 I have often tweeted about grief, I remember:
' the losses queue up at the front door, they do not knock, they are thieves and shape shifters' .
Some wipe their feet on the mat and walk lightly without leaving a mark, others tread black mud that can't be removed.  Sometimes the marks comfort us, we like them there, we don't want them removed. Watching someone pass from life to death is the most extraordinary thing, the closing down, the laboured breath, the rattle, the exiting of something enormous. My brother and my mother breathed their last breath against my face. My brother fought and did not want to go, coma deepening and taking him further. My mother desperate to go, wasn't quite ready but a stroke and a strong will had her mind made up, but it took days.

My father died alone in hospital when we'd all gone. I sometimes think the dying have the ability to wait for people to come and wait for people to go.

My mother was the last of the three and seemed to take something remaining of the other two with her. It was three years ago, I don't think you feel the same when both parents have gone. My mother, close to death, opened her eyes twice and said she was frightened. This has haunted me. No garden, no gate, no smiling loved ones. Just fear. This changed my relationship with spirituality .

 I once tweeted about a butterfly in a broken chest of drawers. This was a magical happening in the snow-covered frozen landscape that had altered further what was now a life irrevocably altered.  This day was the final day of taking my family home apart after my mother's death.  In a brown, broken chest of drawers taken from the shed, a peacock butterfly opened its wings in the cold of that winter to reveal its brilliant blue 'eyes.'  It was extraordinary, but I did not see it as a sign.  Now I don't see things as signs. The three deaths of my immediate family were uniquely different as were my relationships with them.

They still wait there, others, at the door. It won't stop and it will be different every time. Our instinct to survive and our ability to carry on against adversity leave me in awe of life. Whether there is a 'later' or just a 'now' matters not to me. I will gratefully accept just the now.


from my journal - January 22, 2013

Recently, I've had some revelations about my grief for my father. I realize now that there are unresolved feelings of anger and guilt. My grief has been a way of becoming him, of placing myself inside his pain. I still have not accepted his death. And, because of that, I have not mourned him. I've noticed how, in my dreams of him, there is always a moment when I declare that he is alive again. I go around announcing his resurrection to everyone. These dreams are not only enacting my desire for him to come back from the dead, they also represent my inability to acknowledge his death and mourn. I keep wanting to go back and change everything. As long I resist the truth of his death, I will be trapped in my grief. He will never again be alive. It is final and some part of me refuses to truly accept that. I want things to be as they were and, in some way, this is what is killing me--my obsession with the past, my aching for it. But I don't know if I can change or let go of the aching. Aching is all I know. Will I ever remember him without desperately needing to be with him again, without almost losing my mind? Do I even want that? I see that the grieving keeps him alive while the mourning puts him to rest. I think, unconsciously, I want to be consumed by his death. I want him to haunt me. I want to be obliterated by grief. It is a kind of self-destruction that I cannot turn away from.

The Memory of Loss

If I didn't think about my father, I could survive. But you can't spend your life not thinking about someone. How do I remember him without disintegrating? How do I get to the point where the thought of him is not as devastating as his death? At what point does memory stop being torture? Does that ever happen? If only I could pretend I never had a father. If only I could forget what I have lost.

Kiki Dimoula and Mourning

Above all, Ms. Dimoula mourns her first husband, Athos Dimoulas, a poet who encouraged her to become one, too, and who died in 1985. She honors his memory in her 1988 collection “Hail, Never.” In writing that book, “all I was thinking was, how could you get back what has disappeared?”

“All my poetry is about that,” Ms. Dimoula said.

— from The New York Times - "Inside a Greek Poet's Work, a Reflection of her Country's Hard Times" by Rachel Donadio

Edgar Allan Poe and the Death of His Mother

"When Edgar Allan Poe's mother died when he was a boy of almost three, he was left alone in the house overnight with his baby sister and the corpse until a family benefactor found them. In his work he returns again and again to the image of the blank stare of the dead, and the proximity of death is everywhere. Burials are premature, bodies won't stay dead, dying chambers stretch out to infinity, cadavers rot and decay, and blood seeps from a corpse's mouth. Before his own death, the spectre of a ghostly woman that haunts these stories would invade his waking life in a series of terrifying hallucinations. Poe's literary effort to describe this encounter with death from every possible angle suggests that the work of mourning could not be completed. Rather than laying his mother to rest, her presence became increasingly real, despite his attempt to transpose the horror of what had happened to another, symbolic level through his writing."

— from The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression by Darian Leader

Tori Amos - "Crucify"

I was just discovering Tori Amos around the time of my father's death. I still remember when he bought me The Beekeeper. It's an album that so many Toriphiles show very little love for but it will always be meaningful to me because it was one of the few Tori Amos CDs he was able to give me, besides Little Earthquakes and Strange Little Girls. He asked me to write out a list of all the albums in her discography that I wanted and I did. After he died, I found that list among his belongings. I held the piece of paper and sobbed.

I still remember the day I told him about my experience of listening to Little Earthquakes. I quoted that line from Crucify --"got enough guilt to start my own religion"-- to him because I thought it was so powerful. He listened to me, like he always did, as I rambled on about this fierce, redheaded, spellbinding woman who was starting to possess and transform me.

Over the years, I've collected all of Tori's albums on my own and it is these albums that have comforted me through my grief and devastation. I used to write in my journal late at night, it was this trance-like writing and I'd listen to Tori. I'd listen to Cornflake GirlTake Me With You, Precious Things, and Caught a Lite Sneeze and my hand would move to the rhythm of her music. This was how I survived.

A few days ago, when my mind was deteriorating because of grief and stress and fear, I watched a performance of Crucify that has always moved me.

I sang the lyrics at the top of my lungs because the house was empty and I needed to shriek and cry and let go. Tori's words became a chant, an incantation:

I have crawled my way back
I have crawled my way back
I have crawled my way back
And I am never going back again
to crucify myself

My voice was raw and angry and guttural. It was the voice of a fatherless daughter who is still on her knees, still lost, still terrified and traumatized. But I am here. I am here. I am here. I do not have him but I have music and, sometimes, when I'm listening to Crucify, I almost feel at peace. Almost.

The Thanatos Archive - Victorian Post Mortem and Memorial Photography

I know very little about Victorian mourning practices except for things like mourning jewellery and the wearing of certain clothes. I stumbled upon the Thanatos Archive, and now I am haunted by these images. I'm interested in how we grieve and mourn through time and space, how practices change and vary across cultures. Maybe this stems from own lack of any kind of mourning rituals. Maybe I need to create these rituals for myself.

I'm intrigued by this need to photograph the dead. The above photos remind of the film "Everlasting Moments." In it, a Swedish woman at the turn of the 20th century takes photographs of dead children for their parents.

We have this need for the physicality of those we've lost--we keep their clothes, we try to preserve their scent, some even keep a lock of hair or take a photo of the deceased. For me, grief is always rooted in the body, in the fact that I will never touch my father again, never be held by him or hear his voice. I feel his absence not just emotionally but within the physical space around me. My pain is intensified when I think of the natural processes his body has gone through after death. He is bones. I know that's harsh or morbid to say but it's the truth and I can't comprehend it. I rarely go to the cemetery where he is buried. How can he be below the ground? How? I can't cope with it.

The photos above preserve the body, they capture it before decay and decomposition begin. That's how we always want to remember the dead. But I still find myself haunted by the corpse--the horror of seeing it, the anguish it still causes me. It's the one thing I wish I could forget, could un-see. If only it were possible.


found in my journal from 2008:

Some nights I cannot sleep or breathe or break this grief in me.

There can never be peace--not when I touch his limp clothing or want to show him the baby birds growing in our geraniums, the sight of their open beaks making me swoon; not at midnight when the bare blackness is chloroform and the world I knew is decimated, the shards strewn in this void of time and space.

What is left after his death? Toil and grief--detritus.

Book #1 of "The Grief Project" -- The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression by Darian Leader

What happens when we lose someone we love? A death, a separation or the break-up of a relationship are some of the hardest times we have to live through. We may fall into a nightmare of depression, lose the will to live and see no hope for the future. What matters at this crucial point is whether or not we are able to mourn. In this important and groundbreaking book, acclaimed psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader urges us to look beyond the catch-all concept of depression to explore the deeper, unconscious ways in which we respond to the experience of loss. In so doing, we can loosen the grip it may have upon our lives. 

Important Quotes (so far):

"I argue in this book that we need to give up the concept of depression as it is currently framed. Instead, we should see what we call depression as a set of symptoms that derive from complex and always different human stories. These stories will involve the experiences of separation and loss, even if sometime we are unaware of them [...] Depression is a vague term for a variety of states. Mourning and melancholia, however, are more precise concepts that can help shed light on how we deal--or fail to deal--with the losses that are part of human life."

"In popular psychology, mourning is often equated with the idea of getting over a loss. But do we ever get over our losses? Don't we, rather, make them part of our lives in different ways, sometimes fruitfully, sometime catastrophically, but never painlessly?"

"The more that the idea of depression is used uncritically, and human responses to loss become reduced to biochemical problems, the less space there is to explore the intricate structures of mourning and melancholia that had so fascinated Freud. I will argue that these concepts need to be revived, and that the idea of depression should be used merely as a descriptive term to refer to surface features of behavior."

"In mourning, we grieve the dead; in melancholia, we die with them."

"The myth of depression as an exclusively biological disease has come to replace the detailed study of the variety of human responses to loss and disappointment. Social and economic forces have certainly played their part here in this effort to transform grief into depression. We are taught to see nearly every aspect of the human condition as in some sense subject to our conscious choice and potential control [...] We might be ill, but we can choose to take the drugs and so become well."

Note: I will continue to share interesting quotes from the text. I hope to have my review written by the end of January.

"The Grief Project" Begins

When my father died in 2006, I was sixteen years old. At the time, I could not comprehend the years ahead or how I would survive them. Now, almost seven years later, I no longer have to fear those years; I have lived them. Time passes, that's what it does best. What time does not do well is heal. I am still grieving my father. A process that, in American culture and probably many others, is viewed as a transitory stage of life--that of grief and mourning--is ongoing, for me. My life stopped on the day he died. I feel I am always that girl hearing for the first time that her father is dead. I still feel the shock of it. I still let out a sob in the middle of the night when I think about the fact that he no longer exists and never will again. A part of me never wants to stop feeling the pain. Life should not make sense without him. I will never be the same and I need to acknowledge that.

Even though he died several years ago it was not until 2012 that I had access to any kind of grief counseling, which helped me immensely. Counseling gave me a way to approach and think about grief. It was therapeutic to talk about my father to someone and to admit how devastating his death truly was for me. I think, in many ways, those counseling sessions set me on this path and planted the idea of exploring the subject of grief in a more in-depth and specific way.

What is "The Grief Project"? It's what I'm calling my year-long mission to read and review books about grief and mourning. I will read memoirs, poetry, and various non-fiction texts that situate grief on a national and cultural level. I want to examine not just the personal dimensions of grief, but the literary and social contours of it. Why do we write about grief? How do we write about grief? Do these narratives shape the grieving process itself? Do the narratives help or hinder us in our own attempts to mourn the ones we have lost? I have these questions, and I also have concerns.

For me, grief was complicated by the fact that I was poor and had no access to therapeutic resources, like counseling, for many years. I was also isolated and lacked any kind of social support to help me cope with trauma. This is just one lens through which I will read these books. I will think about class, gender, and the voices that are privileged in grief literature. Many of the books I'm reading are written by women and this intrigues me a great deal. How do women write their grief? How does writing help in the grieving process? Also, what does a reader get out of reading books about grief? I'm interested not only in the memoirs and books themselves but in the reaction of the audience that connects to them. Do the books alter our view of grief or change how we grieve?

Ultimately, I will ask: What is the role of literature in grief and mourning? What can it offer us that no other art form can? I don't know if this question has an answer. I suspect it has many answers and they all depend upon the individuals who seek out grief literature for their own personal reasons. I am reading these books in order to make a connection with people who understand what it's like to experience a devastating loss. I also want to find a way to describe my own grief. For me, loss has been an ineffable experience. I have struggled to find the words. I've even wondered if there are any words at all. Maybe, in my case, there are none. Nevertheless, I intend to read the words of those who have articulated loss. I look forward to sharing what I discover on this blog.

New Year, Old Wound

Right now--three hours into 2013--I am utterly devastated. My father is dead and I feel the pain of it all the time but it's stronger now that another year without him has passed and a new year without him is beginning. I'm no closer to anything. I'm only farther away from him. The future is a void, an abyss. The past is untouchable. I want to cry but I can't. I can barely write. Life without him is unbearable and long and meaningless. I'm dazed by his absence. It's new again, fresh and raw, like an oozing wound that was never stitched up. Or maybe I keep ripping the stitches out. I cannot let go.

And the question that haunts me always: "What more will I lose?"